September 22, 2017 at 11:19 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I saw this film almost a week ago and I have been sitting on my review because I just wasn’t sure how I felt. Reviewers have been wildly divided; the film has a 74% on Metacritic, not because most people thought it was just okay, but because the majority either really loved it or really hated it. “Mother!” has also gotten the alt-right up in arms, screaming about sacrilege and how much they hate Jennifer Lawrence. And Britain’s The Guardian called it the most controversial movie since “The Clockwork Orange.” That’s a lot of emotion for a so-called “horror” film. But, I will admit that I left the film feeling pretty divided myself. In the end, I think this is a film that deserves multiple viewings. Darren Aronofsky (the brilliant director of “Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler,” and “Black Swan”) has proven himself to be unafraid of complex symbolism and bizarre imagery and this film dives more deeply into both of those areas than any film he has made to date. On the surface, the film is about how the titular character’s (Jennifer Lawrence) life is disrupted when her husband (Javier Bardem) starts letting people into their home. But little in this movie makes any sense on the surface. It is clearly all an allegory, but for what? If you believe Aronofsky and Lawrence (and, I guess, why wouldn’t you?), the film is symbolic of humanity’s relationship with the Earth. Lawrence’s “Mother” is Mother Earth. Bardem’s “Him” is God. The house they live in represents the planet that Mother is continually trying to improve. But then Him let’s in “Man” (Ed Harris) and “Woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer), followed by their two sons who fight (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson). You can see where this is going. While that may be true of what Aronofsky was trying to say, it isn’t what resonated with me about the movie. In many ways, it reminded me of “Black Swan,” which is about artistic obsession. Him is a poet who needs a muse and, the more that muse suffers while still worshiping him, the more inspired he is. That seems like a very personal story. The things artists/performers do to themselves and those they love runs through much of Aronofsky’s work. So, whatever else this film is about, it is on that level that it most resonated with me. This is a long, winding and sometimes dizzying story. The camera follows Lawrence almost exclusively as she spins in circles within this huge home. The circular nature of the set was brilliant because it allowed for all of that spinning that added to the chaos and dysphoria. As everything spins so utterly out-of-control, it would be easy for the audience to get lost in the spectacle. Seeing Him and Mother as human archetypes of artist and muse (rather than larger Earth/God metaphors) grounded the film for me and made the final scenes more impactful. But, that is just my reading of a film that begs for each viewer to bring her/his own interpretation.  I encourage you to see the film and bring yours.


Wind River

September 4, 2017 at 11:17 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

◊ ◊ ½

“Wind River” starts out promising enough. Set in Wyoming in the dead of winter, the film begins with scenes of a stark and imposing landscape. The audience gets a sense of foreboding right off. There is a murder and an outsider comes in to solve it. Sometimes this works well (as in the terrific “Insomnia”) and sometimes not so much (as in “Thunderheart,” which this movie kept reminding me of). “Wind River” lies somewhere in the middle. An FBI agent sent in from Vegas (Elizabeth Olsen) to work alongside the local sheriff (Graham Greene) and a US Fish & Wildlife employee (Jeremy Renner). She’s in over her head but Renner’s character keeps her pointed in the right direction. If you have seen a film like this before, you have essentially seen this film. There are dark people doing dark things but the good guys will stop them. There are some twists and dead ends along the way, a couple of brief outbursts of violence and an ending rich in “justice” (or revenge, anyway). The scenery is visually arresting and helps to create the right mood for a film like this but mood alone can’t sustain you. Writer and director Taylor Sheridan has a great track record. This is the third film he has written. The first two were “Hell or High Water” and “Sicario,” both of which I loved. But this one lacks the humanity of the former and the punch of the latter. Sheridan appears very earnest in wanting to shine his light on the injustices faced by American Indian women but that goal would have been better served by a multi-layered drama, whose focus was on developing complex characters dealing with real life issues, including possibly the one that is the central focus of this film. Instead, what we get is a fairly paint-by-numbers detective thriller, in which two white people swoop in and save the day. The film appears to belie Sheridan’s intent, in that it consistently goes for cheap thrills (tension, violence, revenge catharsis) rather than for empathy or insight. Audiences will leave the theater having no more understanding nor feeling any greater concern for American Indians but they will have had a moderately successful thrill ride.


August 6, 2017 at 8:19 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” opens quietly enough, with young British soldiers strolling through an abandoned French village. But, it doesn’t stay quiet for long and, once the action begins, it does not let up for scarcely a moment of its two hour run time. Nolan pounds us unrelentingly with a sense of chaos and uncertainty. If there is anything truly brilliant about this film, it is the way in which we are made to experience it, rather than simply watch it. The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is told from three perspectives: air, land and sea. In each, we start with three guys (three fighter pilots, three civilians on a boat, three boys at Dunkirk trying to find any way home). Over the film, their stories twist, diverge and come together in a kaleidoscope of ways. Nolan has deliberately told the story out of order and it remains unclear for most of the film where each story fits in the timeline with each other. This confusion for the audience gives us a sense of the confusion at Dunkirk, with nobody aware of what is going on anywhere else. We are forced to abandon a traditional narrative and just take each intense scene within the context of its moment. Nolan also plays brilliantly with the camera. Occasionally, he gives us these vast, sweeping vistas. Often, we have tight camera shots, in the dark, and tilted at strange angles (“why is the ocean running along the right side of the screen?”). We can lose our sense of up/down, day/night in much the same way the poor soldiers did. There are times we watch people scrambling to escape sinking boats and the audience is no more sure of which way is up than the drowning men are. Nolan collaborated again with his favorite composer, Hans Zimmer (“Inception,” “Interstellar”) to create a discordant, driving score that succeeds in capturing the anxiety and madness of what we see on screen. While my favorite performance was the excellent Mark Rylance as the civilian father/boat captain, this was not an actor driven film. The real star here is the story itself. Chaotic, beautiful, unrelenting and poetic. I felt more in the middle of this film than any I have seen in a long time.

A Ghost Story

August 4, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , ,

◊ ◊ ◊ ½

I’m not sure I know how to describe this film because I am not sure how I felt about it. It is hard to know what to expect from a film that appears so patently odd, even in the previews. But, I think I was expecting something more emotional and less pensive. David Lowery is most famous for directing the utterly different (and entirely banal) remake of “Pete’s Dragon.” Whatever “A Ghost Story” is, it is not banal. At times, Lowery’s directing reminded me very much of Terrence Malick, particularly in the film, “Tree of Life.” Like that one, this film was suffuse with a ponderous mood, so much so that it occasionally threatened to drag the narrative to a halt. And I use the term narrative loosely, as this was more a movie of mood than story. The central character was simply a sheet with holes. He had no facial expression, no body language and no speech. He remained blank and, in many ways, utterly disconnected from us. Yet, he also could seem painfully intimate and human at times. Very little was ever spoken. In fact, I doubt there was even 20 minutes of total speaking in the entire film. We easily went stretches of 10-15 minutes at a time without a word being said. We watched Rooney Mara silently grief-eating half of an entire apple pie in real time. She stared at the floor silently eating for almost 10 minutes as we watched her. But that also seems like where the real power of this film lies. This is a treatise on love and loss and soul-crushing heartbreak. Lowery’s brilliance is in not showing that in the big, flashy Hollywood way that we would expect. But the grief and emptiness are all over the screen, none-the-less. This is mostly a film about grief and emptiness and the pervading silence captures that emptiness; it fills the theater with a sense of that emptiness very effectively. I say “mostly” because this film also has an undercurrent of an aridly dry sense of humor. It’s so dry that it’s barely visible, but it’s there with a wink and a nod. I warn you: this movie will make you endure it. But, if you do and can sit quietly enough, intently enough, you might just hear the elegiac voice whispered through the silence. For anyone who has truly, deeply, passionately loved and lost, there is something in this film that may just haunt you.

Lady MacBeth

July 31, 2017 at 8:54 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

◊ ◊ ◊

Based on the 1865 Russian novella, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” this grim little film hews closely to the first two thirds of the original story before diverging wildly for its final scenes. This story has been made into film 5 times since 1927, though this is the first one in English. Director William Oldroyd (in his feature film debut) has set this version in rural 19th Century England. The story centers on the titular character, named Katherine in this version, and her less-than-healthy relationships with the various males in her life. This is a dark and ugly story with remnants of the class injustice and nihilism you might expect from a Russian work. Oldroyd understands that and magnifies the mood with his choice of scenery, color, and sound. The empty heaths and cold stone house lend a sense of lonely despair to the whole film. The scenery, walls, furniture and clothing are all in shades of brown, black or white, with the exception of Katherine who often wears a deep blue dress, accenting how much she doesn’t belong in this world. The musical score is sparse and large portions of the film pass in silence as people share their despair, rage, and impotence with scornful looks rather than words. The film really hinges on the powerful performance of Florence Pugh as Katherine. Pugh had only done one feature length film before but this one could help her break through. She brought a cold, steely determination to Katherine that helped root the entire film. If there is a reason to see this film, it would be her performance. But I was also left wondering if that was enough. This is a grim story that reaches its grim conclusion without much respite along the way. If you are in the mood for that sort of thing, then I think this film was fairly well done. I don’t think anyone would call it a masterpiece but it sets its teeth, bares down and does its job.


Endless Poetry (Poesía sin fin)

July 23, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

When I was a young man, half my life ago now, I read a book by Tim O’Brien called, “The Things They Carried.” In it, he had a chapter called, “How to write a true war story,” in which he explained that telling the “truth” sometimes meant making things up. That was a revelation to me, that emotional truth could sometimes only be told by abandoning one’s adherence to what actually happened. Alejandro Jodorowsky is on a journey to tell his life story in film. But not the facts of his life nearly as much as the feeling of his life. First with 2014’s “The Dance of Reality,” and now with this film, he seems to be trying to understand his own life by explaining it to us. The first film covered his early childhood. This one tells the story of his adolescence and young adulthood. Again, his troubled relationship with is father and his anxiety about death are central themes. And, again, he does not deal with any of this in a straight forward narrative. Instead, everything is metaphor. His mother only sings her lines, which represents the fact that she was a failed singer who was deeply sad about her missed opportunities, though nothing in the film will explain that to you. The movie is loaded with images just like that and you will miss the meaning behind most of them. But that really is okay because what comes through so clearly is how deeply emotionally honest this film is trying to be. As with the last one, Jodorowsky appears frequently behind the actor who plays him, commenting about the events on screen. His father in both movies is played by his eldest son and, in this film, the young adult version of Jodorowsky is played by his younger son. This is a deeply personal affair. It is at times evocative, touching and often quite beautiful. It can also be strange, uncomfortable and oddly funny. And, as with the last one, it was just a bit too long. Though how do you tell a man which bits of his life to leave off the screen? It’s clear that he plans on making at least a couple more of these, if time allows. This man is on a journey toward self-understanding, acceptance and forgiveness. I’m grateful he has invited us all along.

The Hero

June 26, 2017 at 8:21 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

◊ ◊ ◊

“The Hero” is a good example of how much can rest on a single performance. Sam Elliot has made a name for himself as the iconic, laconic cowboy, perhaps most famously in “The Big Lebowski.” However, Elliot’s trademark voice and great white mustache can distract us from what a fine actor he truly is. This film gives him the opportunity to really shine beyond his typecasting, while also slyly poking fun at it. Elliot’s character, Lee, is an actor, most famous for playing a cowboy in “The Hero.” He now does voice-over work because nobody else is calling. And then he get’s a cancer diagnosis. This scene, very early in the film, really shows Elliot’s skill. The camera is focused on him over the doctor’s shoulder and, as he begins to prepare Lee for the news, we watch Elliot’s face shift so expressively as he realizes where this is going. In fact, the film is really just a series of shots of Elliot’s face as he moves through various emotions. For someone who loves acting, it’s a joy to watch and helps to raise this otherwise cliche story up higher than it deserves. There is not particularly any new light shed by anything said or done during this 90 minutes but Elliot shows such vulnerability that I found myself genuinely moved several times. The other actors do their best to keep up but mostly just give space for him to shine. This is his film and he takes the bull by the horns (sorry, I just couldn’t refuse a cowboy metaphor). It is touching and sweet and often feels really genuine, even when it’s also a bit heavy-handed. Again, we can thank Sam Elliot for that. For any of you who enjoy fine performances, this film is well worth watching.


My Cousin Rachel

June 11, 2017 at 5:04 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

◊ ◊

This has been quite the weekend for ambiguous thrillers. One of which worked and, this one, not so much. That is not to say that this was a bad movie. In fact, some elements worked well. It just wasn’t a very inspiring one, either. The rather famous novel of the same name by British author Daphne au Maurier has been the bases for multiple adaptations before, including one staring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland. Though written in 1951, it is set on an estate in mid-19th century Cornwall. Ambrose as has just died in Italy and his young cousin, Philip (Sam Claflin), suspects his wife, Rachel (Rachel Weisz), of having murdered him. Rachel comes to visit Philip on the estate and the audience spends the rest of the movie wondering if Rachel is a cunning killer or a kindhearted and misunderstood widow. Director and screenwriter, Roger Michell, does a good job of teasing both possibilities. Weisz knows how to play her role well, allowing the faintest smile or glance to suggest that maybe… just maybe… she isn’t what she appears. But, then, maybe she is (because, did I imagine that smile?). It’s a clever performance. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t live up to it. Despite the truly stunning scenery, this is, overall, a largely dull affair. There are brief moments of tension, surrounded by long periods of tedium. The story builds toward another, nicely uncertain ending but this film just was not nearly as impactful as “It Comes at Night,” which I reviewed this morning. It lacks any of the vitality that made that film so watchable. Of the two, go see that one. Wait until this is on t.v., you have binged all your shows, and there is nothing new on. Then watch it; it will be much better than sitting through another “Pirates of the Caribbean” for the umpteenth time.

It Comes at Night

June 11, 2017 at 9:16 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

◊ ◊ ◊ ½

The woman in front of me declared this the worst movie she had ever seen. While I am not entirely sure what her canon of favorites would contain, I can understand her sentiment. Though I strongly disagree with her, I can see where someone would be disappointed if they were looking for something traditional here. With a name like, “It Comes at Night,” and a trailer like the one below, this looks like a very standard horror film. You might reasonably expect Stephen King-esque terrifying creatures and gore-a-plenty. But, if that is what you want, this is not what you want. Instead, this film is a genuinely taut creepfest, with lots of tension, mystery and an unnerving level of ambiguity. This is the first major film from director/writer Trey Edward Shults. He has a clear understanding of horror/thriller motifs and uses them to great effect. From the first scene, tension is ratcheted up slowly and unrelentingly over the 90 minute run time. Everything in this world is bleak, washed out and largely colorless, except the dark red door that represents the only way in and out of the house where most of the action happens. The story takes place some time close to now in some deliberately vague part of the United States. Some sort of illness is effecting people and that’s all we know. From there, isolation, anxiety and paranoia ensue. And that is what this film is really about. Calling it horror is a deliberate bait-and-switch on the level of calling “Fargo” a true story; the deception serves a deeper artistic purpose. Our anxiety and uncertainty about where the film is going is purposeful; Shults is trying to mimic in the audience the same experience that his characters are having. Right to the shocking and ambiguous ending, we are meant to be unsure what the hell is going on because the characters are unsure. I want to say more about this, so I am putting a spoiler alert here. If you have not seen the movie and don’t want the end ruined, do not read on. SPOILER: In that final scene, we are deliberately supposed to wonder what does the shock and grief on Paul’s (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah’s (Carmen Ejogo) faces mean. Is it because they wrongly killed an entire family without cause (and the last scene of their son was one more of his dreams) or was it because they were too late, their son is dead, and they should have killed the family earlier? In the end, we don’t know which was the correct path for them to take. We don’t know what the wrong choices were. And that is by deliberate design. We should leave that theater feeling unsettled because the world Shults has created is one steeped in uncertainty. What is it that comes at night? It is not, as we are mislead to believe, some monster. It is us. Perhaps, it is other dangerous human beings who come to threaten our family. Or, perhaps, it is our own paranoia that sneaks into our brains at night and makes us into our own monsters. That is also unclear. This ambiguity is what I love about the film. Shults is not just trying to make entertainment; he is trying to make us feel his movie. I think that takes a deft hand from a screenwriter and director. He took me places I did not expect to go and, for that, I am appreciative.

I, Daniel Blake

June 4, 2017 at 7:39 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

I really agonized over my rating for this film. It is really the best film I have seen this year, in so many ways. This British film tells the story of two people, Dan and Katie, who meet while trying to get unemployment benefits. The story follows Dan’s struggle through the Goldbergian British bureaucracy, as he tries to get the benefits he needs while retaining his dignity. Along the way, he tries to help Katie and her children out wherever he can. This was such a simple, human story told so well. The lead actors were stunning. Dave Jones and Hayley Squires are mostly known on British television, but they gave such genuine performances that whole scenes felt entirely real and unrehearsed. The naturalness of these two actors made the story that much more impactful and this was a moving, difficult story. I have no idea what British social services is like but, if it is anything like this, it’s a tragedy. I only know my own experience with unemployment here in the US a few years ago. It was convoluted but manageable and I found the government employees to be as helpful as they could be. And this brings me to my struggle with this film. I do not know how to evaluate the story because I don’t know how realistic it really is. It takes some turns that are clearly melodramatic and, in so doing, it robs the story of some of its energy. I just don’t know how much hyperbole is happening on screen, so I don’t know how to evaluate it. That said, I was deeply moved by much of the film and was really taken in by the characters. So, in the end, I chose to rate it based on that. I think it’s a film everyone who loves great acting should see.


Next Page »

Blog at
Entries and comments feeds.